Tim Farron: A Lib Dem to do business with

While Nick Clegg remains comfortable in coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, has other ambitions.

When I received an embargoed copy of Nick Clegg’s opening speech to the Liberal Democrat conference, as my train made its way towards Glasgow, one line immediately stood out. The Deputy Prime Minister was soon to refer disparagingly to “some people in our party” who “don’t like us being too nasty to Labour”.

It was an unmistakable reference to my interview with Tim Farron in last week’s New Statesman, in which the Liberal Democrats’ president told me: “I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories, who compare him to Kinnock.”

Referring to the unsuccessful 2011 Alternative Vote campaign, Farron added: “He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick, so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.” That Clegg took exception to the comments was not surprising; Miliband has repeatedly suggested that his head would be the price of a future Labour-Lib Dem coalition.

Two hours later, as Clegg walked out on stage, I waited in anticipation for his rebuke to Farron, the darling of the party’s left. But as he approached the relevant passage, the line was softened to “but let’s not be too nasty about Labour”. For the sake of party unity, Clegg retreated from an attack on his most likely successor as leader.

After I broke the news on the NS’s Staggers blog, the party leader’s team politely informed Farron’s staff, who responded with amusement. When the Lib Dem president signals his preference for a coalition with Labour over another with the Conservatives, he does so in the knowledge that he speaks for most of his party’s members. A poll for the grass-roots website Liberal Democrat Voice this month showed that 54 per cent of party activists would prefer a post-2015 alliance with Labour, compared to just 21 per cent for the Tories.

In his own speech earlier that day, Farron, the Lib Dems’ finest platform orator, had spoken ambitiously of his desire to “build and lead a new consensus”, in a resurrection of the pre-2010 language of progressive realignment. Should Labour become the largest party after the next general election but fall short of a majority, he has positioned himself perfectly as a Lib Dem Miliband can do business with.

Tim Farron, President of the Liberal Democrats. Photo: Getty

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.